Horses, Trojan horses and organisational culture

Animal metaphors are common in business circles. For years I’ve spoken about elephants, tigers, Trojan horses, donkeys, unicorns and countless other beasts both real and mythical.

The other day my colleague (Karina Smith) and I were discussing the type of work we do at Meld Studios around organisational culture. We spend an increasingly large amount of time talking about tigers, elephants, Trojan horses and the impact these ‘Trojan horse’ projects really have on organisational culture. In the midst of a long conversation about other things Karina said, “some projects are just horses”.

Our musings into this cul-de-sac of horses, Trojan horses and organisational culture felt worth capturing and sharing…

Horses

Horses are projects that are only ever about THE THING. There is no intent or delusion that they will affect anything else. You are obsessively/blinkeredly /myopically focussed on just the thing. You want it to be the best version of that thing that it can be.

If you are a good person (and I know you are), you want the horse to be healthy, so you consider the context in which the horse will reside. But you have no intention of changing that context. You are just creating the horse. You will happily work within that constraint.

For example, designing a chair could be thought of as a horse project. To design a great chair you need to consider the context in which the chair will reside, but you don’t expect the chair to change the context. And crucially your and their assessment of your success (whoever they are) is defined by the quality of the thing. If the horse is great then you have done a great job. People won’t say “great chair, but it didn’t change the living room”.

As long as you are under no delusions it is anything else, a horse project done well, i.e. fully considerate of its context, can be a wonderful thing. We all need horse projects. But be under no delusions, it is and will only ever be a horse.

Trojan horses

Trojan horses are projects where you are doing the project fully conscious of a broader context and crucially you are doing the project because you wish to have an impact on that broader context.

I first became aware of this metaphor in relation to my work when reading Dan Hill’s marvellous book Dark Matter and Trojan Horses. If you haven’t read it, you should.

As a human-centred designer I have worked on many Trojan horse projects over the years. My Trojan horse is the ripple effect that engagement with customers can have on the organisation. My client thinks the project is about one thing, but by bringing the outside voice into the organisation, I can help them understand what they really need to do – and give them insights to inspire a bunch of other future projects as well.

Although the people engaging me to do the work may have judged the success of the work on the quality of THE THING (the horse), for me it was always about the broader impact that the thing could have (for me it was only ever about the Trojan horse).

I have lately come to think that Trojan horses aren’t always as impactful as I once thought they were. I have seen many Trojan horses become neutered by organisational culture and end up having no greater impact than horse projects. The client may be happy with this — after all they only asked for a horse — but I am left frustrated at the lack of impact my Trojan horse had.

Organisational culture

Organisational culture is the broader context in which projects reside. My work as a human-centred designer involves helping organisations deliver better outcomes for their customers. For years I focussed exclusively on designing things customers directly interacted with, thinking that these projects could have ripple effects (be Trojan horses) that would change organisational culture and help organisations become better versions of themselves.

Although I have worked on some wonderful, impactful projects that have improved the lives of people in a myriad of ways — projects haven’t always had the broader impact I hoped.

Over the last few years I’ve come to a realisation that this covert world of Trojan horses isn’t always the most effective pathway – especially if one has loftier aspirations to have a more meaningful impact on an organisation.

Organisational culture affects everything an organisation is and does. Yes there are instances where organisations will be receptive enough to allow Trojan horse projects to infect the organisation with a goodness that leads to better things, but also many, many times I’ve seen organisational culture slowly (and quickly) stymie all the good outside-in insight that these Trojan horses carry.

If we have a loftier aspiration of changing organisations for the better and positively impacting the people who interact with the organisation, we must work on projects that are explicitly about changing organisation culture – not where it is just some optimistic by-product known by a select few.

Be conscious of what you’re doing

My intent is not to suggest any hierarchy between these different types of projects. Huge value can come from a horse project, Trojan horse projects can deliver amazing horses and have wider organisational impact. But be conscious horses are only ever horses and sometimes the doors don’t open on your Trojan horse, or the insights get massacred by the culture.

If you really want to change organisational culture, work on projects where organisational culture and mindsets are the explicit terms and outcome of your engagement.